Macedonian Ramble: the Slow Train to Thessaloniki


The Florina station in the rain. Waiting for the morning train to Thessaloniki. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the seventh part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

To get from Bitola (North Macedonia) to Thessaloniki (Greece), after yet another fruitless due diligence visit to the railway and bus stations, I decided to hire a taxi to travel the twenty miles across the border to Florina, where I could catch a morning train.

I arranged for the taxi to collect me at the Hotel Theatre at 7:45 a.m., which allowed me a last breakfast in the lobby restaurant, where the resident cat, Mustafa, seemed to be in charge.

My train was at 10:20 a.m. but I decided to give myself extra time, not knowing if the North Macedonia – Greece border would involve some extra steps around the bureaucratic dance floor.

On the train line in the Vardar valley from Skopje to Thessaloniki, the border crossing can take several hours, given that the frontier town of Gevgelija is an entry point into the European Union.

My taxi driver had some English and used the ride south (about 35 minutes) to bemoan the political situation in North Macedonia—the crummy schools, the lack of infrastructure, the crooked politicians. He went on: wages are 300 euros a month; the Greeks resent the name and presence of North Macedonia (and have taken over its territory); all the money is in the hands of local mobsters; casinos are springing up; Albania has the Slavic warm water and beaches; tourists only go to Ohrid, if they come at all to North Macedonia; and the train line to Florina has yet to start running.

When I asked him more about the €19 million EU cross-border train link, he gave the standard local reply: “Who would use it anyhow?”

Florina’s End of the Line

As it turned out, the road passage through customs between North Macedonia and Greece was a breeze, involving just a scan of my passport.

A few minutes later the still talkative taxi driver dropped me at the Florina train station (decorated with graffiti), where a cold rain was slanting against the foggy windows.

I thought of going to a nearby café for coffee, but none were open. Nor can I say that Florina in the rain had much appeal for a walk. I ended up spending about hour in the gloomy waiting room until the inbound train arrived from Thessaloniki (Florina is the last stop) and outbound passengers were allowed to board.

Dreaming of Trains That Don’t Exist

When the train departed at 10:20 a.m., I was still unsure of my plans for the day. In an ideal world, I wanted to spend the day in Thessaloniki and then catch a sleeper in the direction of Turkey.

Those plans only existed in my “ideal train world” (Nirvana with waiting rooms…), in which there are night trains, with well-made beds and a dining car, running in any direction in which I am headed.

Sadly, I knew from my timetables that the night train from Athens and Thessaloniki no longer ran to Edirne and Istanbul. At some point it had become a casualty of deteriorating foreign relations between Greece and Turkey, railroad indifference, or budget cuts—perhaps all three.

Lacking detailed information on trains heading east from Thessaloniki, I decided to wait on my pending travel decision until I could check the departure board in the Thessaloniki main station.

Alan Furst’s Spies of the Balkans

For the train ride in the rain, I had a thermos of hot tea, maps of Greece and Turkey, and Alan Furst’s novel, Spies of the Balkans, which is set in Thessaloniki at the start of World War II.

I had read it before but carried it along on my Kindle to be reminded of the political intrigue between Germany, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey in 1939-40.

For those who do not know Furst’s novels, his beat is the human emotion and political courage that followed the outbreak of the European war in 1939. His characters, while sometimes professional spies or politicians confronted with the fascist threat, are often accidental heroes, men and women thrown into a desperate situation that requires them to deliver refugees to Istanbul or stolen documents to MI5.

In Spies of the Balkans, the hero is a laconic Greek police official, Costas Zannis, who in 1940 watches as Thessaloniki begins to fill up with German, Italian, and Turkish operatives—all of whom are scheming for the collapse of the wobbly Greek state.

While most of Furst’s plots feature Nazi rapacity (not to mention night trains, porous borders, and a passionate wartime romance), the pleasure of his novels are his historical asides, such as this description in Spies of the city the Greeks would prefer to call Constantinople. He writes:

Well they still had it, now Istanbul. And the Turkish armies had retaken Smyrna in 1922: burned the town, slaughtered the Greek population and changed the name to Izmir. In the following year a treaty was signed: three hundred and fifty thousand Turks left Greece, and a million and a half Greeks came to Greece from Turkey, came back home, where they hadn’t lived for a thousand years. Thus, in the autumn of 1940, there was still a taverna called Smyrna Betrayed, located on what had once been known as Basil-the-Slayer-of-Bulgars Street. Renamed the Street of the Franks, in memory of yet another conquest. Easy enough to find new names in a city where the wars outnumbered the streets.

If you’re ever looking for memorable and affordable European travels, buy a few Furst novels and ride a succession of trains, say, from Warsaw to Istanbul.

Dead Ends in Macedonia

On my train ride to Thessaloniki, I switched between reading my book, sipping tea, looking out the window, and plotting on my maps the next stage of my journey. At this point my only fixed booking was a return ticket home from Istanbul in a week’s time.

Had it been summer, I would have decided to linger in Thessaloniki for a few days, but it was now December and the trade off was this: if I stayed a night or two, I would have to skip the battlefields of Gallipoli at the Turkish end of my trip, and that I didn’t want to do.

Maybe after a brief stop in Thessaloniki (where I had been several times before) I could get to the Greek city of Alexandroupolis in eastern Macedonia?

I was drawn to the distant port city as it made cameo appearances in many histories I had read about the Balkans—sometimes as the Turkish city of Dedeagach but other times under Bulgarian control.

The current name dated to the Greek “liberation” in 1920, when the Allies used the 1919 Peace of Paris and the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine to take Dedeagach from Bulgaria and give it to Greece, which it serves as a port in eastern Macedonia.

Hitler’s “Peace and Quiet” in the Balkans

Florina is on the southern side of the mountains that now define the border between North Macedonia and Greece. Leaving the town, the train snaked through defiles and valleys that no doubt had seen heavy fighting in the campaigns of World War I. Now they form a landscape of small farms and rolling hills that bake in summer and freeze in winter.

After about an hour the train emerged onto a broad plain and passed not far from Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia, where Alexander the Great was born.

I had thought of stopping there, but there was no easy connection from the rail line. So I satisfied myself with a later reading of Mary Renault’s fine biography, The Nature of Alexander, in which she writes: “To the end of his days he [Alexander] kept the Iliad under his pillow, along with the dagger for self-defence which was the commonplace bedroom furniture of a Macedonian king.”

In the meantime all I could so was look out the window and read Furst (“…the train was classified as an express, but it never speeded up, just chugged slowly south across the… plain, past snow-covered fields where crows waited on the bare branches of the trees, through mist and fog, like a countryside in a poem or a dream….”). He captures the Byzantine politics of the Second World War in the Balkans with this long passage, writing:

In Salonika, in the morning papers and on the radio, the news was like a drum, a marching drum, a war drum. On the tenth of February, Britain severed diplomatic ties with Roumania, because the government had allowed Germany to concentrate numerous divisions of the Wehrmacht, munitions and fuel, within its borders. And this, according to the British, constituted an expeditionary force. Then, on the fifteenth of February, it was reported that Hitler met with certain Yugoslav heads of ministries at his alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden, known as the Eagle’s Nest. Accompanied by a photograph, of course. Here was the eagle himself, surrounded by snowy peaks, shaking hands with a Yugoslav minister. Note the position of the minister’s head – is he bowing? Or has he simply inclined his head? And what, please, was the difference? The ministers had been informed that their country would have to comply with certain provisions of the Axis pact, whether they signed it or not. To wit: increased economic cooperation with Germany – sell us what we want, we’ll name the price – permission for the transit of German men and arms through Yugoslavia, and passivity in the event of a German occupation of Bulgaria. What wasn’t in the newspapers: BULGARIA CALLS FOR GENERAL MOBILIZATION! And what, on the sixteenth of February, was: BULGARIA SIGNS NON-AGGRESSION PACT WITH TURKEY! Over his morning coffee, Zannis read a quote from the agreement about the two countries’ intention ‘to continue their policy of confidence towards each other, which policy assures the security of peace and quiet in the Balkans in a most difficult moment, through mutual consideration of their security.’ Which meant: When Bulgaria invades Greece, Turkey will not join the fighting. If Bulgaria invades Greece? The Salonika journalist didn’t think so. Neither did Zannis. And the phrase ‘peace and quiet in the Balkans’ did not originate with either Bulgarian or Turkish diplomats, it was Hitler’s phrase. So, now everybody knew.

No wonder Zannis sleeps with his service revolver at this bedside.

Booked for Alexandroupolis

Around 12:30 p.m. the meandering two-car, graffiti-ed train pulled into Thessaloniki’s hulking (almost Germanic) main station where I checked my bag and found a ticket window to explore my options for heading east.

The agent on duty said that the last train of the day (needless to say, not a sleeper with a dining car) departed at 3:25 p.m. and that I would arrive on a replacement bus in Alexandroupolis around midnight.

On this day the train was only running as far as the town of Drama (near the ancient city of Philippi, which was fought over in the Roman civil wars that followed Caesar’s assassination).

I didn’t love the replacement bus connection or the arrival time, but I bought a ticket on the afternoon train (was it The Mark Antony?), figuring that it’s what a character in a Furst novel would do if heading for the Turkish border in December rain.

Next: Around Thessaloniki and the struggle for Macedonian independence. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.